South Africa’s only distance learning university, Unisa, could not single out 5.1% of its students for “very privileged treatment” by retaining Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the university has argued.
Unisa opposed an application by civil rights group AfriForum for an interim interdict to stop the university from implementing its new English-only policy.
Matthew Chaskalson, for Unisa, argued in the North Gauteng High Court that the university was committed to making the aspiration of tuition in all 11 official languages a reality and had to use its resources for the best interest of its entire student body.
He said the real importance of the new language policy was not in the treatment of Afrikaans, but in the treatment of indigenous languages.
“We’re not talking about a university where a substantial number of students choose to be instructed in Afrikaans. The facts show that, at best, 5.1% of Unisa’s students take a single module in Afrikaans.
“We say there has been no violation of rights. They [AfriForum] attempt to preserve a historical position of a pre-democracy era and resist the attempt by Unisa to place all languages on an equal footing in circumstances which can no longer be justified, either historically or practically.”
He argued that AfriForum had not come up with a single affidavit by a student saying that the English-only policy was a real problem and that it had no legal standing to even argue the matter.
Johan du Toit, for AfriForum, argued that the university’s new language policy was a serious inroad into the fundamental rights of students to be educated in the language of their choice, where practically possible. He argued that there had been no consultation at all with any of the students affected by the policy before it was implemented overnight.
Du Toit said AfriForum’s main application to set aside the language policy would probably not be concluded within the next year or two. If the court did not grant an interim interdict and the application eventually succeeded, the rights of students who wanted Afrikaans tuition would forever be lost, he added.
“We’re not saying expand Afrikaans. It’s just a question of reinstating what was there. It may be that over the years Afrikaans will lapse because of a lack of demand,” he said.